D’var Torah: Ki Teitzei: Putting Elul to Work
Four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, 40 years of wandering in the desert: imagine the legends of the Land of Israel that must have been told. In the heat of the day, while baking bricks for Pharaoh’s cities, perhaps a grandfather told his grandson of the cool breezes and the shady places in the Promised Land. While walking in the wilderness, perhaps one girl was so thirsty she could hardly catch her breath, so her mother comforted her with tales of the sweet fruits and vegetables that grow in the Promised Land. And, when the Amalekites attacked Israel at Rephidim, perhaps Joshua dreamed of the great peace he might one day discover in the Promised Land. Parashat Ki Teitzei describes the moment when the Children of Israel are positioned just outside of Eretz Yisrael, the mythical place of their dreams. They could hardly contain themselves: a new life of cool breezes, luscious fruits, and deep peace was just on the horizon, less than three weeks’ distance.
And what does God instruct Moses to say to those gathered, buzzing with excitement? “When you take the field against your enemies, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife… ,” this is how you should treat her (Deuteronomy 21:10–14). “If a parent has a wayward and defiant son… ,” this is how he should be punished (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8). If a young engaged woman is raped in town, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:23–24). If a young engaged woman is raped in the countryside, this is how the case should be treated (Deuteronomy 22:25–27). And on and on goes the list of seventy-two mitzvot. Laws concerning how to treat the widow, the orphan, the rejected wife, the hungry, the slave who is fleeing from his master, and the one who suffers a skin disease hardly paint a picture of the land of their dreams! Where are the good times? Where is their paradise? Where is their fulfillment, if not perfection? Moses lays down the ultimate reality check when he says: When you establish yourselves in the land, be sure to set up the washrooms outside of the camp! (Deuteronomy 23:13–14). All these mitzvot come to prepare the Children of Israel for what is just around the corner—not a perfect life, but a life of potential; not the “Promised Land,” but a land filled with promise.
We, too, are poised at the edge of something new and full of promise. Just on the horizon, less than three weeks’ distance, sits Rosh HaShanah and a new year of possibility. Some may dream: “This is the year that I’m going to get it right. This is the year I turn it all around. I’ll be the perfect parent, the ideal spouse, the most loving son or daughter to my aging parent …” Visions of our highest selves are necessary if we are to advance, but like the dreams B’nei Yisrael had of life on the other side of the Jordan River, our dreams of the year ahead must be tempered with the realities of life on the ground. Like sovereignty in the Land of Israel, we, too, are works in progress.
When the Kotzker Rebbe was asked to define a life of Chasidism, he answered, arbetn oif zikh, that is, “to work on yourself.” We work on ourselves throughout the year, but that work is intensified now in preparation for the High Holy Days. In his book, “The Jewish Way,” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg draws a playful parallel. The month before summer hits, we go on crash diets, dreading how our bodies will look in bathing suits at the water. So it is with Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah. Elul is when we go on crash spiritual regimens for fear of how our souls will look when standing naked before God.
Like our ancestors stationed east of the river, we imagine with curiosity and anticipation what lies ahead for us now. For at least three reasons, we should pursue the visions we have of our highest selves. First, we have implanted within us the human capacity for change. No matter our previous failures to break from bad habits, no matter our fears of taking risks or of actually succeeding, we can change. Second, we are not alone in our desire for change. We can draw strength from the Jewish People—past and present—which shares a never-ending journey through the wilderness toward promise. And third, God is forgiving. Even if we fall short, even if reality strikes and we miss the mark, God rewards us for having made the effort with all our being. The shofar is sounded each morning throughout the month of Elul. Let us hear its dual call—the call to advance toward our dreams and the call to be roused from our slumber, so that we are sure to advance with eyes wide open.